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Group makes outdoor gear for homeless

Going to the mat to help

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Jen Carmichael, of Marathon, crochets a sleeping mat using plastic grocery bags at a friend’s house Friday in Marathon.

This story appeared in the November 14, 2017 edition of the Cortland Standard. To become a subscriber, email us, or call us at (607) 756-5665. Back issues available by request.

It may seem as simple as handmade mats, blankets, pillows, hats, mittens and socks, but it could mean keeping someone on the streets warm.

After losing her son, Dajen, to a drug overdose 21 months ago, Jen Carmichael of Marathon began channeling her grief into helping others like her son.

Carmichael began the Sowwy Foundation with the help of friends and family. The foundation got its name from a speech impediment Dajen had where he couldn’t say R’s or L’s. Instead of “sorry” it was “sowwy,” Carmichael said.

Carmichael said her son had been homeless when he had died. “I couldn’t find him on Christmas two years ago, he was sleeping on the street,” she said.

A week later, Carmichael found her son. “I can’t explain how hard it was to see him that cold,” she said.

Together with others of the group Carmichael spends her time plarning sleeping mats. Plarning involves cutting up plastic bags and crocheting them into a mat. “It takes between 700 and 900 grocery bags to do it,” Carmichael said.

Each sleeping mat is 3 feet wide by 6 feet long and has a layer of felt sewn over the top. Each one takes around 70 hours to make, Carmichael said. That includes picking up grocery bags, cleaning them, turning them into strips and crocheting them together.

However, last year Carmichael didn’t know how to crochet. She began crocheting after one of her son’s former teachers in Marathon, Ethanie Holl, taught her. Over the course of a year, Carmichael acquired the crocheting and sewing skills she’d need to put together the mats. “I didn’t even know how to thread a needle last year,” she said.

It was through Holl that she met Diane Couch. The two soon began working together to bring warm items to people on the street.

Couch said she got involved as something to do while going through chemotherapy. “I find it therapeutic,” Couch said. “It’s given my love (of making things) back to me.”

The two, along with Carmichael’s husband, John, and friend Nick Blim, moved into an old building on Couch’s Irish Hill Road property. Blim installed new flooring and shelving in the 1,3000-square-foot space, Carmichael said.

Piles of fabric and yarn sit among half-finished mats and yarn hats. The group has delivered more than 100 kits — which include a mat, blanket, pillow, scarf, hat and socks — to the Assembly of God Church in Binghamton, Carmichael said.

More than 100 hats, 20 scarfs, 20 blankets and 40 pillows have also been given. “It’s a way of healing and giving back to the homeless and addicts,” Carmichael said.

While the group continues to make progress, donations are always needed. On Thursday, the group traveled to visit thirdgraders at Minoa Elementary School. The third-grade student council had a grocery bag and yarn drive with everything collected going to the Sowwy Foundation, Carmichael said. “It was awesome,” she said.

Around 15 kids and their teachers had collected bags upon bags of material for the foundation to keep making its kits.

Carmichael doesn’t want other parents to have to see their children cold, as hers was, she said. “People need to know that they are loved and people do care,” Carmichael said.

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